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Informed Consent: When, Why, and How It’s Obtained

While there are many important aspects of a clinical research trial, the trial itself wouldn’t happen without research participants. Running a successful trial depends on recruiting and retaining clinical research participants. In order for individuals to participate in a study, they must receive information about what their involvement would include and voluntarily agree to participate, known as the informed consent process. Aside from being a regulatory and ethical requirement, informed consent is a good way to ensure participant knowledge and start a relationship between researcher and participant based on communication and trust that continues throughout the trial.

Informed consent is defined as the process of providing participants important information pertaining to the clinical trial, including what procedures they will undergo and possible risks and benefits. The information is intended to help participants make an informed decision on whether or not they want to start or continue with a clinical trial.

When is Informed Consent Obtained?

The informed consent of the participant must be obtained before any research procedures start. This is documented by an informed consent form (ICF) signed by the participant. This document is kept on file for the duration of the clinical trial, as well as a specified time period afterwards for auditing purposes. Participants must know key aspects of the protocol and understand their involvement in the trial is voluntary. They can withdraw from the study at any given moment, without reason.

Informed consent is not a one-time process; it is the start of a relationship based on communication. Research staff should not only obtain informed consent before any trial-related procedures begin, but consistently throughout the trial. Oftentimes, new information arises and changes elements to the trial that may impact the participants’ decision to keep moving forward. While they might have agreed to the protocol the last time, it doesn’t guarantee they will agree to keep moving with the study if it is amended. It’s essential to maintain ongoing conversations with participants, and ensure they continue to understand the protocol, their responsibilities as well as have their questions answered and agree to continue.

Conversely, there are times when informed consent is not needed, although these cases are rare. Informed consent is typically waived during emergency situations when it’s unfeasible to obtain consent from the participant – such as a critically ill subject. It’s important during these situations for doctors to act in the subject’s best interest, even if it means ultimately deciding not to include them in the trial.

Why is Informed Consent Obtained?

There are many reasons why a participant decides to join a clinical trial – they might want to advance science, or they may see it as their best option for treatment. Regardless of their reasoning, participating is voluntary, and subjects can opt-out at any time without any given reason.

Since it’s voluntary, a research participant needs to go through the informed consent process on a consistent basis. Informed consent is obtained to assure the researcher that the participant knows every aspect of their participation in the trial – what the procedures or treatments are going to look like and the potential outcomes, including the benefits and the risks.

Obtaining informed consent also benefits the research staff. A good consent process means the participant understands what is being asked of them. An ongoing consent process means the participant stays up-to-date on what is happening next in the trial. If they are fully informed and truly understand what is being asked of them, they will be more likely to stick with the trial for its entirety. This improves data integrity, ensuring the trial meets its scientific objectives.

How is Informed Consent Documented?

There are two main ways consent is documented: on paper and in electronic format. Regardless of format, there are common elements to making sure the participant has the information needed and voluntary consent is obtained with their full understanding.

Paper consent is collected in person with a research professional and the participant, whereas electronic consent (eConsent) uses hyperlinks, videos, and assessment tools to assist with understanding the consent document. To ensure the consent is complete, information is reviewed by a physician or by other individuals (i.e., researchers) with appropriate scientific training and qualifications.

However, it’s important for the research team member facilitating the consent processer to break down the ICF in simple terms for their participants to understand. Oftentimes, participants do not have a scientific or medical background and have questions or need clarifications. Participants may also want to meet outside of the initial meeting so they can ask any questions they might have thought of after the fact or to address any concerns. They should be allowed to take the consent form home to think about their participation and talk to others, such as their primary care physician or family, about whether participating in the study is in their best interest.

Participants are a key stakeholder in clinical research. Ultimately, if the participant feels comfortable and educated during the trial, they will be more likely to stick through the trial. Knowing the basics of when, why, and how informed consent is obtained and documented provides a great foundation for ensuring participant satisfaction.

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